By Laurence Worms
Charming, invigorating, welcome and often indispensible as her company is on visits to other booksellers, particularly those working from home, there is just one tiny drawback in having my dear wife alongside me on such occasions. That is the unfortunate opportunities this sometimes opens up for what we might call points of invidious comparison.
We found ourselves in the Sussex market town of Midhurst the other day – very pleasant, even in the rain – partly as an episode in the ongoing quest for perfect seasoned logs to keep the home fires burning (the ones available locally are apparently just lumps of wood – but that’s another story). So obviously also an opportunity not to be missed to call on Philip Remington (of Reg & Philip Remington), who is nowadays quartered in these parts.
Now, while the name Remington might merely suggest rifles or razors to some people, to those of us in the real world it means only one thing: the finest of fine books in the spheres of exploration, voyages and travel. The firm can trace its origins back to that day in 1951 when Reg Remington was taken on by the Francis Edwards firm as a trainee, rising through the ranks to become in turn assistant to Herbert Edwards, then Edwards’ successor as head of the voyages and travel department, and then a director of the firm. Meanwhile, his son Philip was undergoing his own vigorous training at the so fondly remembered Hodgson’s Auction Rooms on Chancery Lane. In 1979 they joined forces to begin trading independently, taking on a shop in London’s Cecil Court in 1980, where they remained as one of its great adornments until 2002.
The ever jovial Reg, now in his eighties and living in St. Alban’s, is no longer quite so actively involved, but is still in daily contact with Philip. (Time for some memoirs from Reg? – he must have a story or two to tell). Their website claims the combined experience and expertise of over eighty years between them, but by my reckoning this must now easily add up to over a hundred. It shows above all in the stock – quite, quite, superb. The great and the rare in their chosen field of early voyages, travel and the classics of exploration. My eyes pop at a lovely sixteenth-century Hakluyt – an Anson here – Cook’s voyages there – and just go on popping. A stock rooted in real experience, real expertise, real knowledge and the kind of taste refined and perfected over a lifetime.
It would be evident, even at first glance from a wholly untutored eye, that, on the whole, these books are more rare, more beautiful, more important, in better condition and more valuable than anything I might currently have in stock (first point of invidious comparison). It is also obvious that Philip’s book-room is considerably tidier than mine (second point of invidious comparison). He modestly claims that it has been specially tidied up for the occasion under instruction from his own wife after having read my comments on this treacherous topic in earlier posts on the blog. I rather doubt this: he might have eased a book or two backwards or forwards on the shelf, but I remember the shop – that was always immaculate. This is proper old-time bookselling where sloppiness simply isn’t allowed.
Philip in fact rather misses having the shop: he liked the discipline of heading to work each morning, arriving in a new day, being busy all that day, talking to customers, but then closing the door and leaving work behind until the morrow. His laptop is a constant and invasive companion now (and he has a sleek and stylish laptop – third point of invidious comparison). I advise him to get up in the morning, leave the house, walk round the block, arrive at work, and then repeat the process in reverse to arrive home in the evening (not that I would ever dream of doing this myself of course, but it seemed like a sound and kindly thought when someone offered it to me when I made my own transition from having a shop to working at home).
It’s also apparent that the books here are confined to the book-room and haven’t seeped, leaked and crept out into very corner of the house (fourth point of invidious comparison). Philip and I fall into chat about old days and new ways, the way booksellers do: respective memories of Hodgson’s in the seventies; the importance of really listening to customers – learning more from them than they will ever learn from you; selling books then and selling books now. The importance and apparently overwhelming need of customers to have a photograph of everything now, as if the expert words and advice of an experienced cataloguer are somehow no longer enough. If Philip were to tell me that something was a beautiful copy in a contemporary binding, why would I need a whole suite of photographs to prove it? – that’s what it will be. And there are great practical difficulties in actually photographing books, or at least in photographing them well – this is not easy even for professional photographers. Philip’s camera is of course much better than my little point-and-click contraption (fifth point of invidious comparison)– the sort of camera that looks as if you might need a Ph.D. in photography just to turn it on. And he appears to know all about Photoshop (or at least his daughters do) – sixth point of – well, you know, I’ve stopped counting by now – this is becoming chastening.
In the meantime, although our specialisations don’t overlap to any great extent, I’ve managed to find a few things to buy – a glorious little children’s atlas (the last copy of which I had was forty years ago), a book with a most unusual binder’s stamp, a book with some early commercial attempts at colour printing, and a couple of folding maps.
We turn for home (via the log-shop) – promises renewed to tackle some of the invidious issues raised in the course of a very happy and decidedly instructive hour. The stock here at Tooting Towers will be tamed (and photographed) – all in good time – but for now the name Remington stands for serious and genuinely antiquarian bookselling done with skill, taste, style (and tidiness). If your thoughts turn to the epics of travel and the rare books of exploration, then here is your starting point – www.remingtonbooks.com.